Grammy-winning, Emmy-nominated comedian Lewis Black will perform at the Majestic on Friday, February 4. Last week, he spoke with Enrique Lopetegui on the phone from New York.I hate to use the word “joke,” because what good comedians do are not jokes. But
is it true that you don’t write your “jokes” down?
Yes. How crazy is that? I work usually four days a week, generally. I do it and I do it and I do it, and I learn what works and doesn’t work. I do take notes, “talk about this, talk about that,” and think of how I’m going to approach it. I may change the wording here and there, but basically I [mentally] figure out what works best.
Which is the real you? The actor? The screamer in The Daily Show? The stand-up comedian?
Probably the one that is a little quieter but you think he could snap at any moment.
That would be the stand-up comedian.
You cite Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor as key influences, yet your style couldn’t be more different than theirs. What did you take from them?
From Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor I learned that you can talk about anything you want to talk about, as long as you make it funny. And from other comics I learned how to tell a story. For me, it is a combination of telling a story, and getting people to follow you in whatever nonsense you think it’s important.
You don’t write your routines down, but you do write books and plays. Do you consider yourself a writer first and foremost?
Yes. That’s what I spend most of my time concentrating on.
I’ve been dying to hear your take on the Tea Party
I’ve waited my whole life for a third party to show up, and when they do, who knew that they would be insane? And it’s not their fault
[he gets an incoming call, takes a break and calls me back in five minutes]. I don’t know how to take an incoming call while I’m on the phone. It’s very sad. Where were we?
We were talking about the Tea Party.
Oh, yeah. The reason they’re insane is not their fault. It’s that they’ve been listening to Democrats and Republicans their whole lives. They have nothing to base their reality on.
And they get mad when we say they’re a bunch of ignorant fucks and throw their diplomas to our faces.
An education to me, in the end, is figuring out how to have common sense. I really wouldn’t go back to
If you dress up like Ben Franklin to protest, I don’t even understand what you’re protesting. It’s wonderful that he discovered electricity with a key on a kite. That’s terrific.
You know, you go to any comedy club and nine out of 10 comedians suck.
What are the most common mistakes you see in up-and-coming comics?
The most common mistake is that many of them should be studying law or medicine or applying their brain to something that matters. Another common mistake they make is that the business and the money is more important than their craft, and another one is that just because people are sitting at a table and laughing, it doesn’t mean you are a comedian. If I could have a dollar for every person who came up to me and said, “You know, I was told I could be a comedian
.” Then do it! Is not just learning how to do seven minutes. It takes a lot of time, and energy, and effort to learn how to hold the stage for at least 50 minutes.
But were you always good at it? Did you often bomb? What would happen if you listen to your early routines now?
Oh, I was horrible! When I started I was horrible. But I wasn’t doing it full-time. It took a really long time for me to relax onstage. Once I relaxed onstage I got to be much better. Watching me try to light a cigarette onstage was horrifying.
You walk the stage slowly, and your delivery has a lot of pauses. Were you rushing it a bit at first?
Oh, when I started, I used to play San Antonio at the Capital Comedy club. I think it’s still there. I never had pauses then. I moved and talked so fast that no one had a chance to heckle me or say anything. I would go at a million miles an hour.
Who are your favorite comedians right now?
Right now there are a lot of people I like. I like Dom Irrera, he’s terrific. One would put him in the old school of comedy, but he’s not, he’s a unique voice. There’s Kathleen Madigan, who is really coming into her own now. She has a new DVD and she’s brilliant. The guy who opens for me, John Bowman, is very funny. There’s Ted Alexandro, who has always been quite a gifted writer and comic, really unique. Dave Attell, I can watch him for days. I could go on and on and on.
Tell me a about your book, I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas, and your new show, In God We Rust.
My editor said I should write a Christmas book, and I told him he was crazy. Then I told him, “If I could write a book about being single, disguised as a Christmas book, I’ll do it.” And that’s what I did. I thought writing a book about being single can become like a series of dopey essays. Christmas is the most family-oriented time of the year, so you really get a sense of what being single is like.
Christmas for me sucks, and I’m married. But you have it worse: you’re single and Jewish.
But in a way it helps, because I don’t have to deal with being Jewish. Being single I still go to see my friends, and they’re all married. I basically spend the entire time thinking, “I’ve done nothing with my life because I don’t have a family,” and by the time it’s over I’m thrilled to be alone. The basic drive is to get into a relationship and to mate and all that, and when you somehow miss that, you have to wonder and question, “What’s going on?” The book was a way to do that. I’ve been on tour for a year with In God We Rust and I still have a few months left, and then I’ll shoot the special. What people will see [at the Majestic], some of that stuff is going to be in the special.
Did the Christmas book start with Anticipation and other old routines?
Yes. Part of the reason they wanted me to start on the book was because I had so much material on Christmas and Hanukkah and how out of control it all was.
I’m from Uruguay, and
Really? I just visited! I literally visited your country. I was in Buenos Aires (Argentina) on Thanksgiving Day, and we went over to the other side.
Where did you go?
There’s a small
I don’t even remember the name of the town. It’s a small, old
Yes! Colonia! Yes! It was very nice. We spent the afternoon there.
My point was
when I was in school, everyone wanted to go to Europe, and I wanted to come to America. And there was this one guy who was going to move to Canada, and kept telling me, “Don’t go to the U.S.! Go to Canada! Everything’s free there!” Now he’s in great shape, and I’m screwed!
(laughs) I think it takes a lot of nerve, after you voted, after Congress already passed health care reform, to want to repeal it. On the simplest level, no matter what else, no matter how they want to pull it off, you can’t rescind it. You may want to try to figure out another way to do it, but you can’t take it back. I didn’t have health insurance until I was 40! It’s horrible! At what point does your illness allow you to go to a doctor? I was sick with something way back. I remember waiting five days, and I was horrified. And then eventually I had to go to this free clinic
Did that work for you? I’ve had terrible luck with free clinics. Whenever I needed one, for one reason or another they couldn’t help me.
There was one around the corner, which is why I was able to do it. But it was frustrating, because you really don’t have a doctor. You get somebody and then if you go back you don’t get the same person. And they don’t really have the time, and they’re doing it for free
I mean, we can’t continue to argue it. One of the reasons [Obama] won, whether people like it or not, is because Americans want health insurance for everybody. They want Medicare, Social Security, and [health insurance]. So I don’t care. They can cry all they want about “government this” or “government that,” but if you want to figure out another way to do it, figure it out. But it has to be done. It’s criminal. Every major country in the world has it, and we don’t. Baboons take care of themselves better than we do.
And all the Washington politicians get government health care, but they don’t want us to get it.
That’s what I said in my act. When they first voted, they said “You’re allowed to vote for it only if you don’t have it.” If you took away all of their health benefits, they would figure it out in 10 minutes. My father has that insurance, because he worked for the government, and it allowed my parents, who are not rich, to live a nice life; everything has been covered. They have no worries when it comes to that. My mother broke her hip and the insurance company said, “Hello! Here’s $30,000.” Without blinking.
“But that’s socialism!” Which you openly admit
I do consider myself a socialist. I always thought that, if everybody was better off, if everybody’s life was a little better, then everybody’s life as a whole is going to be a lot better. I know people in Sweden who are rich, and they still live in a socialist country. You can still be rich in a socialist country. It’s eluded me for a long time why if you are making $25 million a year, you can’t live on that alone, it’s never enough. It doesn’t make sense. Another reason [people resist socialism] is because people don’t trust government and yada yada yada. But it would certainly be good if we could pay for everything, like health care and retirement. We’re always worrying about the five percent of people who are going to jimmy-rig the system and get away with murder. Well, why don’t we worry about the 95 percent who try to make an honest wage?